Tzetzka Ilieva’s Starry Night

starry night…
the school custodian carries the flag
on his shoulders

© Tzetzka Ilieva (Bulgaria)

Acorn #28, Spring 2012

The feeling behind this haiku is multi-faceted: earthy, humbling, epic, and melancholic. There is also a possible allusion to the painting “The Starry Night”  by Vincent van Gogh in the first line that adds another dimension to it. Maybe that dimension is a hint at the toils the school custodian has gone through, as Gogh painted “The Starry Night” while in personal torment.

The last line carries a lot of weight, no pun intended. “Shoulders” references at least two things at once: his actual shoulders, and his metaphorical shoulders. It is already a grand image to have the national flag bolstered on one’s shoulders, but to think of the symbolic implications is even grander. School custodians are typically thought of as low-level people in a society, but with him carrying the flag, an instantly poetic and contemplative scene arises in the reader’s mind. It could happen that all of us, even school custodians, carry one’s country forward. It may be that each citizen of a country is valuable, despite our feelings of being minuscule compared to the reaching influence of politicians, figureheads, and celebrities.

The first line, besides making a possible allusion to van Gogh’s painting, is making a physical reference to the stars on the flag. I presume this flag is the American flag, though other flags have stars on them. The stars on the flag are also complimented by the night sky filled with stars. This sense of fullness, stars top and bottom, displays a classical haiku aesthetic of completeness and oneness. The ellipsis (…) reiterates this sense.

The use of “the” in this haiku shows the gravity and respect this subject deserves. If it was “a school custodian” or “a flag” it would not have as much weight to it. Usually in haiku, we try to be selective about the articles we use to show a mood and which place readers should place their attention primarily. But in this haiku, both the school custodian and the flag are given equal respect, which goes along well with the context of the haiku.

On a sonic level, the “s” sound works well in “starry,” “school,” “carries,” “his,” and “shoulders.” For me, this sound makes the haiku even more reverential in mood.

About the action itself: we don’t know exactly why the school custodian is carrying the flag, and possibly outside. Many reasons could arise: he had to take it down to put it in a box during summer season, he had to bring a flag to an event in the school, he had to replace a flag in a classroom, the school is closing down and he is moving the flag outside into a packaging location, and many more possibilities. But what I do know is that seeing this haiku in my mind’s eye, with the school custodian walking down a hall, the flag on his shoulders, I can’t help but feel something indescribable.

– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)

Robert D. Wilson’s Painting

not now, crow …
the wind’s painting
canyon walls

© Robert D. Wilson (Philippines)
Under the Basho 2016

Often, the power of a haiku (or a hokku) is driven by the strength of its third line. Playing against expectations, the poem leads us one way only to change directions and surprise us in the end with an unforeseen insight. As readers, we are shocked into an “aha” moment and given a fresh new way of looking at the world.

Robert D. Wilson, in his superb hokku “not now, crow …”, bucks this approach. Instead, he hits us with a powerful first line, imposing upon the reader an array of implicit questions. Why not now? Why a crow? What is the relationship between the narrator and the crow? Are they companions? Adversaries? And what, exactly, is it that needs to be left until later? These questions, triggered by three short words, work to create a wide space into which the reader can step.

Within this space, Wilson places an image of the wind “painting canyon walls.” While the wind does not literally paint, it does so metaphorically through erosion. Over time, the wind will alter the shape and look of a canyon wall through its steady pressure. The wind is one of nature’s creative forces, an agent of change in the world.

Yet just as the wind is an agent of change, so too is a crow. As scavengers and eaters of carrion, crows are widely associated with death. The narrator is fully aware that the world is a changing place, and what the crow represents within it. Reflecting back to the opening of the poem, we realize this hokku is a contemplation of mortality. Against a backdrop where “the wind’s painting canyon walls”, the narrator begs off the crow, tells it “not now”, and remains unready to face that final change of death.

– Dave Read (Canada)

Momolu Freeman’s Guitar

summer breeze painting my old guitar


Words and art © Momolu Freeman (USA)

I believe Freeman made the right decision to make this a one liner. When you have too few words, it is often better to make a haiku one line instead of two or three.

For example:

my old guitar
summer breeze


summer breeze
my old guitar


summer breeze
painting my old guitar

… seems to have less impact on the reader and does not look as appealing on the page.

The one line version also encourages readers to see the double meaning easier. It can be read as “summer breeze/painting my old guitar” or without a stop as “summer evening painting my old guitar.” The first one is a contrast/comparison, and the second one is implying the summer breeze is painting the old guitar, either by splashing paint unto the guitar with its force, or by staining the guitar with whatever is in the surroundings. It could also be metaphorical, as the wind could be painting the guitar in an unseen way, painting it with its currents and unseen shapes.

“Summer,” the seasonal reference or kigo, is that of romance, relaxation, joy, but also the burning sun which crumbles crops. This being paired with painting an old guitar is poignant. Indeed, in a summer breeze, we can feel something of memories and the renewal of those memories. Like painting an old guitar, a summer breeze brings many memories back of joy, but also maybe of sadness or reminiscence.

No season is black and white, especially in haiku. Though seasons have themes, each season has counterpoints we can be aware of.

The “r” sound in the haiku gives the effect of wind rustling through trees and maybe the guitar itself. The “i” sound in “painting” and “guitar” seems to give greater emphasis and maybe a sense of the toil in the process of painting a guitar.

The art gives an indication of the seriousness of the topic as well. The guitar appears to have been given African attributes, and points to African-American tradition in the blues and other music based on the guitar. Though America is a young country in relative terms, the ancient African heritage brought to America by way of slavery has had a profound impact on music, from blues, jazz, rock, funk, soul, disco, house, and much more.

This haiku might be less of pointing towards a personal experience, and more of a collective experience, how Africans are reclaiming their heritage and finding it through the strains and strands of history.

– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)

Lucia Fontana’s Barley Expanse

barley expanse . . .
like incense smoke
the poppy waves

The Mainichi, 17th August, 2016

© Lucia Fontana (Italy)

One of the things that drew me towards this haiku is that it has a simile. Usually in haiku, we try to stay away from metaphors, personification, simile, and other poetic devices that do not present subject matter in an objective sense.

However, it is also a tradition in haiku to use simile as a kind of a trick of the mind, or to bring attention to a deeper truth. Though it is used sparingly for effect, when it is done right, it works well. It is like when you are playing music in a certain mode and introduce a note not in the mode. It surprises the audience and can sometimes make a performance special. In any art, we cross boundaries to reveal new emotions or to express something needed to be expressed.

Though the first line is straightforward, especially with a classical kireji (or “cutting word” or punctuation in English), the following lines start with “like,” enacting a simile that has overtones of spirituality. Many people who write haiku have a Buddhist background, as Basho, the “godfather” of modern haiku (or hokku, as it was back then) was a Zen practitioner. Haiku is not a Zen art form, but Zen has greatly influenced haiku in its journey from being a part of a linked verse named renga and becoming its own poetic form that has grown more serious, philosophical, and powerful in showcasing people’s connection with nature, and vice versa.

With “incense smoke,” the reader is guided to see the poppy’s petals in their turning in the wind, like the curl of incense. This image is even more stark with colors in mind: barley being golden yellow and poppies usually being a luscious red. Red can be said to be a color of passion and devotion. In a sense, I think the writer is saying she sees something ethereal in the way the poppy’s petals wave. Poppy’s petals are light and feathery, and are layered on top of each other. I believe the comparison of these petals with incense smoke is apt, and their color can definitely bring about a feeling of something innocent, spiritual, and awe-inspiring.

Though the ellipsis seems to clearly cut the haiku into two portions, we can also read the haiku as: barley expanse . . . like incense smoke/the poppies wave. This gives a new sense to the haiku, suggesting the poppies are interacting with the barley field in a natural way, but there is an underlying spirituality to it as well.

However, both ways of reading the haiku brings about the sense of the magic of nature. As children, we feel the mystery and power behind nature on our explorations through forests, plains, deserts, and the like. As adults, we can lose this feeling of the magic of nature. I think the feeling behind this haiku is that the spirituality and mystery of nature should be seen in our eyes again.

It is interesting to note the use of the word “expanse” and “incense” which rhyme and both refer to spirituality. Also of importance is the connection between “smoke” and “poppy” with the “o” sound, which gives off a sense of something prolonged (the traveling of incense, for instance). The ellipsis, in addition, emphasizes the sense of continuation.

Lucia Fontana has written a unique haiku, using a simile, colors, and motion in a poignant and meaningful way. Hopefully more modern haiku poets will venture to use similes like this and put their attention to spiritual subjects more often.

– Nicholas Klacsanzky (Ukraine)